Watch What We Say: Top Chef
By Jason Lee
January 16, 2009

We knew she was in trouble when Kathie Lee Gifford liked her.

This week on Watch What We Say: Old MacDonald had some bad food, ee—ii—ee—ii—oo.

I don't know about you, but Hung was never one of my favorite contestants from past seasons of Top Chef. He's brash, he's boastful, he's arrogant, he's condescending...he's kind of like Stefan in this season, except with a lot more Quickfire and Elimination wins.

But like him or loathe him, Hung is back in the Top Chef kitchen, but this time as a Guest Judge for the elimination. He stands with Padma in front of the chefs, flanked by a huge table with something covered up by a large white sheet. Fabio, the all-knowing Italian, makes his guess.

"We all know that Hung loves seafood," Fabio says in his charmingly broken English, "so behind him, it must be an aquarium."

Close but no cigar. Instead, it turns out to be a huge cabinet filled with canned foods.

"Garbage," scoffs Jeff. "It's all stuff that most chefs wouldn't use."

But that's not the only twist. Not only do the chefs have to cook using ingredients that are neither fresh nor seasonal, in the spirit of Lightning-Fast-Hands Hung, they only have 15 minutes to cook their dish.

"C'mon guys, that's plenty of time," Hung says.

"For you!" retorts Carla. I'm starting to really like Carla. She's grown on me.

The chefs scurry to the cabinet and start rifling through the cans – it's insane. You gotta imagine that the chefs will spend at least two to three minutes looking at all the available ingredients and deciding what to cook. That in itself will use up a lot of their time.

As you can imagine, most of the dishes sound pretty simple so far. Jaime is doing a bruschetta, Leah is doing waffles, Fabio is doing mac and cheese . . . the only drama so far is coming from Stefan who wants to use some of Hosea's spam in his baked bean soup. Hosea, understandably, dislikes Stefan quite a lot and admits that while he'd really like to withhold the spam, he's sort of morally obligated to share ingredients and dutifully hands over the spam.

Hung strolls over to begin tasting the chefs' dishes. It's amazing how cocky and judgmental some of the past contestants can be once they're on the other side of the table. I remember quite clearly thinking that Hung was snobbish during last year's challenge in which the final five chefs had to serve dishes to the judges plus the winners of the previous three seasons. I'm wondering if that same elitist, I-know-more-than-you attitude will come out in this Quickfire.

The reactions from Hung and Padma come quickly – just like Hung's dishes. Leah's waffles are too crunchy, the inclusion of chili pepper in Fabio's mac and cheese is nice, Radhika's bean dip and tahini feels like canned beans with seasoning (which they probably are), the pork rinds in Hosea's dish are great, Jeff's conch dish is complex and has a nice use of fish sauce, Jaime's bruschetta is simplistic, Ariane's open-faced sandwich is "interesting," Carla's salmon cake has some nice mayo on it...I know we have nine chefs left but that was over really quickly.

So who's on the bottom? Leah, Radhika and Jaime. All girls. Who's on the top? Hosea, Stefan and Jeff. All boys. Hrmmm, I wonder if I should add "misogynistic" to my list of Hung's character flaws...

So who takes home the bacon? It's . . . STEFAN! Wow, hard to believe that this is his first win in any portion of the competition since the very first episode.

Considering how much I dislike him, I'm sort of pissed that he's immune from elimination. This makes me wonder, though. Has Stefan ever been in the bottom three? Off the top of my head, I can't remember any time when he's been on the bottom. A quick visit to Wikipedia during the commercial break confirms it: he's never been on the bottom three. Sigh. Guess it'll be a while before we're rid of this a-hole Finn.

The elimination challenge is announced: three teams of three chefs are to create a seasonal, family-style lunch around one protein: lamb, chicken or pork. This meal must include dessert (instantly, I think that whichever team has Carla has an advantage, given her considerable baking skills). The teams are:

Lamb: Ariane, Leah, Hosea

Pork: Jeff, Fabio, Radhika

Chicken: Jaime, Stefan, Carla

Immediately, there is drama. Stefan has a crush on Jaime but she hates him. Ariane is not happy being stuck with "the lovebids," Leah and Hosea. Fabio says that his team must stay simple and avoid cooking Italian food (as he always does), Indian food (as Radhika always does) and over-thinking their overall dish (as Jeff often does).

The chefs go back to the loft to organize their dishes. Hosea is concerned that he and Leah are on the same page (and in the same bed, apparently) but feels that Ariane isn't. They decide, however, that because Ariane won a challenge by cooking lamb that she will be responsible for cooking the lamb in this challenge.

Meanwhile, there is a huge argument taking place with the Chicken team. Stefan apparently wants to do only what he wants to do and is exhibiting his tendency to veto any other ideas from any other chef on his team. This irks Jaime and she fights back. Carla is trying not to get caught in the cross-fire. They finally decide to make roasted chicken (though Jaime thinks that this is too simple) and soup (which Jaime thinks is too heavy).

One hour later, Jaime and Carla get together and talk about their ...something they couldn't do while Stefan was in the conversation. They want to re-work the menu and approach Stefan, who's smoking like an idiot on the balcony, with their recommendations. He won't hear any of it. Jaime is only able to begin with, "We were thinking about the menu—" before he cuts her off abruptly by saying, "I'm not changing the menu. It's done." He won't listen, he won't consider. I hate him.

The next morning, Hosea wakes up and wants to start changing his team's dish – he thinks it's too simple. He meets with Leah and Ariane to make alterations but Ariane is quickly ignored and the two lovebirds hash it out.

Carla sits in the car to go to the store between Jaime and Stefan. No one is talking and no one actually knows what they're gonna be cooking. I think it's pretty obvious that the Lamb and Chicken teams are in the most trouble.

As they drive, Fabio realizes that they're traveling much farther than the Whole Foods...the cars finally end up at Stone Farm, which is a local farm where a lot of NYC chefs get their ingredients. SURPRISE! So not only do the chefs get a firsthand look at where their food is grown and raised, but they can only use ingredients that are available at the farm.

Immediately, all the teams start to tinker with their menu. Jeff wants to make a fried green tomato dish as there are some beautiful ones growing on the farm. Fabio must change his sauce for the pasta because there are no cherry tomatoes to be found – he'll make pesto instead.

The chefs enter the kitchen with baskets of all the produce they were able to collect and find huge sheet trays of their protein, just ready to be butchered and broken down. Everyone gets to work. Drama, as always ensues.

Radhika was going to do a fig bread pudding for her team's dessert but there are no figs so she has to do a salad instead. She also takes a long time to grill corn, which irks Fabio. Ariane doesn't know how to cook baby lamb and is worried. On top of that, she doesn't know how to tie lamb to roast it in the oven and so Leah has to help her. Jaime is worried, after looking at the other team's food, that their menu is too simplistic.

I think that at this point, I'm really worried that either Radhika or Ariane will go home. Radhika just seems lost...sort of like the little orphan step-child who doesn't know what to do at a wedding. Ariane seems completely out-of-her-league in cooking this lamb, which is surprising since she's got tons of restaurant experience and has done very well in the past couple of challenges.

But it's time to eat. The lamb team presents a duo of lamb, roasted potatoes and a heirloom tomato salad. The chicken team is doing chicken cutlets, roasted corn with a tomato salad and a chicken ravioli soup with swiss chard. The pork team is doing a sausage, zucchini, eggplant ravioli with pesto, fried green tomatoes and seared pork loin with a corn salad. There's a lot of corn and a lot of tomatoes here.

It sounds like the chicken team is a hit, with good food and nice flavors. The only quibble is the fact that on a hot day, it makes no sense to have a soup (stupid Stefan!!).

The lamb team is a mess and gets ripped apart by the judges. The protein is butchered unforgivably badly, is overcooked and has been overly dressed with pesto.

"This is lamb dressed as mutton," concludes Toby.

"This isn't honoring the protein at all," says Tom.

Oh boy. I've been rooting for Ariane since the second episode...she's been my favorite little underdog and now it really sounds like she'll be going home.

As for the pork dishes, the judges find that the pesto completely overwhelms the delicate flavors in the ravioli and sausage. Tom also doesn't like the fact that the pork loin has been stripped off of the bone. "If you have the meat on the bone, why would you take it off?" he questions.

The desserts are coming out next and I have my fingers crossed that the Lamb team's dessert is so good that they cannot have had the worst dishes and that someone from the Pork team will go home.

Nope. While Carla's nectaraine and strawberry tart is delicious, the summer berry trifle from the Lamb team and the crème brulé from the Pork team are both failures. Sigh. It looks like my favorite chef will be going home.

As we guessed, the Chicken team is on top and they tell a beaming Carla that her tart was their favorite dessert. After a surprisingly short discussion with the judges about their dish (with little praise for any other chef), the judges announce that they've ALL won this challenge. Hrmmm. Reminds me of that quote from The Incredibles when the mom tells Dash, "Everyone's special, honey," to which he replies, "Which means no one is."

Who's on the bottom? The two other teams. Scary times, indeed.

"Both your teams did very poorly in this challenge," says Padma to open things up..unleashing a tidal wave of criticism.

Tom wants to know who removed the bone from the pork loin (Jeff) and questions why they would do that when cooking meat on the bone adds flavor. Toby criticizes the strong use of petso on the ravioli. Tom accuses Radhika of not contributing enough to the team.

"I wasn't standing still for three hours," Radhika retorts, contending that she helped out with a number of elements to the dish.

Then, to paraphrase Daniel Day-Lewis, there will be blood...because the judges turn their attention to the lamb team.

"Why did you roll out and pound out the lamb?" guest judge, Dan Barber (acclaimed chef for using fresh, seasonal, healthy ingredients) wants to know.

"We wanted to tenderize it," explains Ariane.

"But baby lamb is already tender," Dan says.


"Why was Ariane the only one dealing with the lamb?" Padma wants to know.

"There were limited responsibilities because Ariane took the lamb," Leah sputters in a bad attempt to say, "We let Ariane do everything so she should go home since it was bad."

Tom, meanwhile, has a big problem with the butchering of the lamb. He calls it "amateurish" and says that the rolling and tying of the lamb was horrible – to which Ariane admits that she doesn't have a lot of experience and Leah has to admit that she helped out with something that turned out to be badly done. Hosea is not immune to this criticism because he admits that he has a lot of experience butchering lamb but didn't do anything to help Ariane out.

"That was brutal," Hosea says when they re-enter the Stew Room. Hosea, you ain't seen nothing yet, cause now they're gonna discuss everything that went wrong and decide who goes home.

Tom says that this week's challenge is an example of what happens when good ingredients are in the hands of bad chefs. Ouch. While they give a little bit of consideration to sending Radhika home ("she took a backseat and didn't seem very bothered by it," says Padma) they reserve their harshest criticisms for the Lamb team.

"What is [Ariane] doing here if she can't butcher a leg of lamb?" Tom asks.

Padma feels sorry for her but Toby chides her, "Don't let pity cloud your judgment...she can't cook."

"Well, she can cook. She's made some beautiful dishes before," Padma says, trying in vain to at least stand up for Ariane and maintain her dignity.

"But correct me if I'm wrong, we have to judge only on what we saw today. Everything before is gone?" Toby asks and is affirmed by Tom.

I'm really sweating now, super worried that Ariane is gonna go home. Usually, the chef that makes the most elementary mistakes, the chef that seems like they're least equipped to be in the competition goes home. That certainly sounds like Ariane, though I have a smidgen of hope for Leah to go home instead.

"Leah knew something was wrong and let her teammate take the fall," Padma points out. Dan Barber agrees and says that Leah's refusal to take any responsibility for the bad butchering or tying of the lamb was his biggest pet peeve during Judges Table.

The chefs come back out and the final accusations are leveled at them.

Radhika didn't contribute enough. Fabio obliterated his dish with pesto. Jeff made the mistake of removing the fat and the bone from the pork but his fried green tomato dish was spectacular, it honored the ingredients and in the end, it saves any of his teammates from having to go home.

For the Lamb team, Leah didn't contribute much to the team and she needs to fight for the dishes that she wants to see on her menu. Ariane demonstrated that she's lacking in butchering experience, the lamb was not cooked well and it was too heavy with the marinade. Hosea had more experience but let his teammate flounder. She got in over her head and he should know better.

It's not even a question at this point. Ariane is going home. And I'm super sad.

Yep, she's asked to pack her knives and go.

"It's been a pleasure having you here," Padma tells her.

"It's been a pleasure, it's been a great experience," Ariane says, though you can clearly tell that she's super pissed off. Jaime is totally shocked that Ariane has been eliminated but Ariane says that she knew it would be her and she's proud of what she's done, even if she feels that she doesn't deserve to go home. She says that she started way on the bottom but made her way to the top and that her family will be proud of her.

I'm proud of you, too, Ariane. And I'm totally coming to your restaurant when I'm on the east coast.